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JACKSON, Miss. — Just like old times, Deion Sanders flowed with all sorts of energy, positivity, philosophies and, well, style, as he sat in his office at the Walter Payton Center and assessed the state of "Coach Prime."
That’s what everybody calls him at Jackson State, the moniker emblazoned right there on the nameplate on his desk. "Prime Time" was the tag for other times and places — marking the persona and impact attached to his brilliance as one of the greatest athletes in history — but Coach Prime has its own multiple layers of meaning.
Yeah, it’s a noun, but it may be more of verb, given the action in play. It is a nickname and a message as Sanders seeks to revive the football program — and more — at an HBCU school with a new type of relevance.
“Don’t tell me what we can’t do, tell me what we can,” he declares, wearing a skull cap imprinted with the “I Believe” slogan that has become ubiquitous in these parts.
Sanders, 53, insists he is here, right now, because it is nothing less than a spiritual calling.
“I was going to coach. But then when our country just took that left turn with equality and justice, and with the social unrest last year … I just heard that voice in my head and felt my spirit that said, 'This is it,’ " Sanders told USA TODAY Sports.
Before the announcement on Sept. 21 that he would become Jackson State’s fifth head football coach since 2013, Sanders (who coached on the high school level in Texas after operating an elite youth program for several years) discussed the possibility for nearly a year with athletic director Ashley Robinson.
“As stuff transpired, it was an easy navigation in thinking why I had to do it,” he said. "The kids. The community. The vision. The hope. Then you start compiling that with the city of Jackson …
"It was one of those things where it was a calling, and I had to answer.”
Forget about glamour
Jackson State, the SWAC (Southwestern Athletic Conference) and the universe of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) undoubtedly need him now. That much is evident by the exposure Sanders has commanded during a spring football season the SWAC engineered after shutting down the fall campaign in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Jackson State (3-3) has played its last two games on ESPN (and the others on ESPN2 and ESPN3), which may be typical for a Power 5 school but not for an FCS operation that hasn’t had a winning season since 2013.
It’s a testament to the sustained interest that remains in the only man to play in both a Super Bowl and World Series — who also happens to have more than 2.5 million combined followers on Twitter and Instagram.
It’s also apparent that the calling fits when considering all that comes with the Coach Prime brand in style and substance. His path to the Pro Football Hall of Fame was paved by status as the game’s best cornerback during his heyday, and his presence as a swing factor on back-to-back Super Bowl titles with two different teams (the 49ers, then the Cowboys). But it was always accented by the flashy marketing and promotion that made “Neon Deion” an icon.
“Ain’t a whole lot of Deions out there," Doug Williams, the Grambling legend and first Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, told USA TODAY Sports. “Let’s face it: Deion comes with star power and the flair that gets your attention. He has done wonders for the SWAC. They needed him.”
Said Sanders: "Man, it’s so much more than coaching. You’ve got to be Tyler Perry around here. You’ve got to write the movie, produce the movie, edit the movie, act in the movie, sell the movie. You’ve got a lot of hats to wear.”
Fitting, that he can relate to an entertainment mogul. Sanders has been trailed all season by a film crew collecting footage for a documentary pegged to air later this year.
Just don’t mistake this for a glamour job. The Tigers are riding a three-game losing streak that underscores a certain reality check. The defense allowed an average of more than 40 points and nearly 500 yards during the setbacks. Sanders benched quarterback Jalon Jones last week and replaced him with freshman Quincy Casey. The talent is thin in the trenches.
There’s also a need for upgraded facilities and support systems. HBCU schools have traditionally lagged in these areas when compared to predominantly white schools with high-revenue programs. Hearing Sanders break down how the upcoming installation of a turf practice field will change the flow provides a snapshot.
As it stands now, a rainstorm adds at least two hours in travel time to bus to Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium or local high schools to practice, given the flooding issues and poor drainage on the school's grass practice fields. There’s also a new locker room under construction. And athletic director Robinson outlined efforts to enhance day-to-day necessities for the entire athletic program, including sports medicine, nutrition, strength and conditioning and academic support.
It’s not that Sanders didn’t realize such challenges existed. When he attended Florida State, where the premium facilities could easily be taken for granted, he needed to merely stroll up the street to the nearby HBCU, Florida A&M, to get a sense of the difference.
“FAM was right around the corner,” he reflected. “But it’s one thing to visit. It’s another thing to understand what they’re dealing with. That’s why the inequality is real. When you’re in it, you start saying, ‘Oh my God. I got y’all.’ "
Williams knows. Before returning to the NFL in 2014 as a personnel executive with Washington, his journey included two stints as head coach at his alma mater, in addition to a year as coach at another HBCU, Morehouse College. About a month before Sanders began at JSU, Williams said he told him, “At an HBCU, you’re not going to have everything that you think you need.”
Yet Williams added, “They’re giving him more than most coaches around the SWAC have.”
Regardless, Sanders is undeterred as the season winds down with a home date against Prairie View A&M on April 24. He believes that his coaching experiences in Texas, when he didn’t have as much as a coach’s office — “We were make-shifting everything,” he said — provided some preparation. And he is banking on a human element that includes a coaching staff flush with pro and college experience, to provide a recruiting edge.
“We may not have this, this or this, but we can do that,” Sanders said. “No, we don’t have the hot tub in the middle of the locker room. But guess what? This navigation system can get you straight to the NFL, just like that one can.”
Vision for boosting a city
No surprise, there is no shortage of ideas coming from Sanders as he envisions success. He has long been a master strategist. Remember, well before he entered the NFL in 1989 as the fifth pick in the draft, Sanders mapped out a plan to raise the profile and earning power of defensive backs … then backed it up with his talent.
Now the strategies involve big-picture visions that go way beyond producing a team good enough to win a SWAC crown. He wants to see more HBCU teams in college bowl games. He wants to keep the momentum flowing with the recent national TV dates, sensing how the exposure can create opportunities for the best players on opposing teams, as well, to play on the next level.
Shoot, he wants to be a player, too, in boosting a city that recently drew national attention for its water crisis.
“Before you leave, just take a drive all the way around the school,” Sanders urged, referring to the decaying neighborhood on the outskirts of the campus. “You’ll say, ‘Oh my God.’ We’ve got to revitalize this stuff, man. There’s a lot of revitalization that I would love to do. I would love to get with a tremendous contractor and revitalize all of this around the school. One has to care that much.”
According to The Clarion Ledger, 25% of the 166,000 residents in Mississippi’s capital live below the poverty line, and the median household income is $38,000. Mayor Chokwe Lumumba said the city has suffered from “cycles of humiliation” reflected by an under-funded and poorly performing educational system, a failing infrastructure, poverty and a high crime rate.
Mindful of Jackson State’s impact on the local economy — and on the local culture — Lumumba sees Sanders’ arrival as a “shot in the arm,” with the coach’s optimism for the football program running on a track parallel to his visions for the city.
“It was clear when he arrived that he wanted to be more than a football coach,” Lumumba told USA TODAY Sports. “What that says to me is that he gets it.”
It remains to be seen whether Sanders will significantly influence business development in the city, but his impact is unquestionably already felt at Jackson State. In the nine days after Sanders’ arrival, school officials told The Clarion Ledger that the athletic department generated $19 million in additional marketing and promotional value.
Robinson said when he arrived as A.D. in 2019, the program didn’t have a single sponsor. Now, he said, it is aligned with “15 to 20” sponsors, many of whom signed on since Sanders came aboard.
Can't wait to win big
Nothing sells like winning. For that mission, Sanders is like the typical rookie coach, seeking to upgrade talent and change culture.
There’s buzz amid the fan base about the fall season, as JSU is expected to field several new starters — including Deion’s sons, Shilo, a transfer safety, and Shedeur, one of the nation’s top quarterback prospects — from a crop rated as the best recruiting class in the nation on the FCS level.
Dennis Thurman, the longtime NFL defensive coach who signed up as JSU’s defensive coordinator, warned against getting caught up in Sanders’ flamboyant persona.
“He’s much deeper than that,” Thurman said.
He described Sanders as a strict disciplinarian who opens team meetings with a prayer, adding to constant messages about off-the-field conduct. “He’s very committed to developing them for the real world, outside of football,” Thurman said.
Daylen Baldwin, a junior receiver, vouched for the evolution.
“The whole team in general is more disciplined,” Baldwin said. “The organization ... everything is just very strategic in how our coaches go about talking to us on a daily basis and go about helping us on and off the field.”
Baldwin, 21, is too young to remember Sanders as a player, so he's grasped much by digging up video clips, and he received an earful from his father.
“My dad was really excited when Coach Sanders came,” Baldwin said. “He told me how great he was and how he did things his way, with his Jheri curl and gold chains. He made his own image.”
As Sanders tries to create a new image in the coaching ranks, it’s apparent that just like old times, he will make his own template.
Yet some things never change. Sanders is still stoked by competition, which is why the Tigers' performance in recent games has at times embarrassed him. And you know he wasn’t feeling it when one opposing coach served up some postgame trash talk after defeating Jackson State.
“We can’t wait until we get there, because it’s going to be fun,” Sanders said, talking about winning big. “So where somebody’s got us on the ropes and they’re talking junk, boy, you have no idea. Because it ain’t going to be no fun when the rabbit’s got the gun."
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell on Twitter @Jarrettbell.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Deion Sanders, 'Coach Prime,' says Jackson State job 'was a calling'